Top of mind: The costs of business fragmentation

November 3, 2023
7 min read

These leaders across industries are paying attention to this issue — you should too

Their jobs are different. Deb Cote works for a prestigious cancer institute. Angel Rivera has a job at a global telecommunications provider. And Freddie Sabbs is employed by Quickbase. But they all deal with the same issues and impacts when it comes to business fragmentation. So we recently sat down with them for a chat. Here are the highlights:

How do you define business fragmentation? And why is it an issue?

Multiple systems along with data, in any capacity, that isn’t streamlined or in an easy-to-understand format. That’s a recipe for guaranteed miscommunication but also rework: people over here working on a task, and people over there are working on the exact same task because nobody communicated. We recently had an instance where three different people were working on the same task. That’s an inefficient way to work.

Angel Rivera, Business Manager at AT&T

Not having a shared system or way of doing things. People working in a silo. People unable to get information to or from other departments, or even within their own department.

Deb Cote, Senior Sirector at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Systems that don’t do 100% of what I need them to do, so that I have to rely on a spreadsheet or other tool to complete another part of the process, which can oftentimes be the most critical. All leading to redundant data, data errors, and lack of visibility.

Freddie Sabbs, Senior Manager of Solutions Consulting at Quickbase

Our recent survey found that workers spend 10 or more hours every week chasing data between different systems. Is that a surprising amount?

Not at all, and in fact, probably on the low end for us. We’re limited in our tool usage, so we often depend on tools that are slower or not a great match for what we need to do. One of our systems can only have one person in it at a time, for example. In another, you can share information but have to export it first, and then import into another system, and by then it’s not real-time data. And since we have many projects happening at once, everything is in a funnel instead of fully visible. When I took on the business manager role, I inherited a bunch of spreadsheets that were interconnected with macros. If you broke anything on the main spreadsheet, you broke everything.

—Angel Rivera

Ten hours a week doesn’t surprise me. I think of that as “switching time” — multiple logins, multiple places and interfaces. Going to and between all those systems wastes a lot of time. And people get frustrated along the way. Some keep going even though it takes them a long time to get to where they need to be. Others give up. Then there’s a gap in information. Or people try and guess. Either way, the information is not as accurate as it could be. I’ve seen people shrug and say, “Well, I don’t need the exact number.”

—Deb Cote

That does and doesn’t surprise me. I often hear about people spending hours on tasks that could be streamlined. I also see how rarely anyone takes the time to examine whether that’s happening across the entire organization. People get used to doing things a certain way. They’re not complaining, not raising their hands to be the squeaky wheel. Sometimes these aren’t the most obvious problems organizations have. But when you add them up, they become pretty significant. Multiplying 10 hours a week — or even five hours a week — across the entire organization and by the number of employees can reveal a bigger problem.

—Freddie Sabbs

Everything you’re describing falls under what we at Quickbase are calling Gray Work: the hidden, sometimes manual, often mundane work behind projects to make do and get by. What’s your takeaway on Gray Work?

It feels very correctly coined. It’s not something that’s black and white. It could be a bit of work here, a bit there, a bit from that person over there. That gray area is what makes it difficult and almost inevitably leads to miscommunication. Not everyone understands the gaps the same way. You may have a different viewpoint depending on your position. There are so many shades of gray.

—Angel Rivera

To me Gray Work is about issues inherent in the process, not the system. People try to approach this from a systems perspective and end up with an IT solution. They should instead start by examining their processes. If a process is broken, no system will fix it. My team often gets project requests to build systems. These take a long time to build because we usually have to build a process as well. When I teach, I tell my students to focus beyond just outputs and deliverables. Look at what will provide value. Ask, “What do we need to fix, add, or embrace” before you jump into, “What are we delivering?”

—Deb Cote

When tackling data fragmentation and Gray Work, where should leaders start?

Trust the people you put in charge to make the right decisions. They know the ins and outs of the everyday, along with the challenges. They can recommend what’s right for your people — whether a new tool that you should fund or a new position you should add, even if it means cutting your bottom line. CEOs think about the bottom line all the time, as they should. But sometimes taking that risk can provide you tenfold productivity or efficiency.

—Angel Rivera

When people complain and struggle, leaders often hear about it. But that also means leaders aren’t always as proactive as they could be. A lack of complaints doesn’t mean there’s nothing to improve. As a leader, ask your team: “What’s one thing that could make this process better, faster, less frustrating, more accurate?” Build this type of exercise into your everyday work. Maybe it’s a quarterly review of your process. Maybe it’s something no one’s ever complained about. Ask around: “How much time are you spending on this?” Overall, make it a learning experience: “Is this working or not? Does everyone do it the same way? Is there a different or better way?”

—Deb Cote

Ask, where are we unique? What’s unique about our business process, about the way we manage leads and opportunities? What are our biggest pain points? Where do we know exactly what we need to do and how we want to do it, but don’t have a way to get there? The next thing to consider is cultural mindset, because ultimately what you’ll need to do is change your approach to solving problems. When we see those two things happening, we see people just go off to the races.

—Freddie Sabbs

Finally, where does Quickbase come in?

Quickbase gives us a level playing field. It lets us figure out our gaps and fragments, and put processes and procedures in place. We had so much rework happening pre-Quickbase, and we’d already tried other approaches and solutions. As you work through a business model, your goal is typically to scale, expand, and continue growing your business. As our data fragmentation and Gray Work increased, and nothing else was working, Quickbase finally allowed us to get our ducks in a row in order for us to scale.

—Angel Rivera

Data fragmentation is a big reason we use Quickbase. That’s what my team deals with. We oversee collaboration and productivity tools, and provide solutions for people who are dealing with this exact issue. We are now able to have one tool pull in data from all the others, and have our information connected in one place.

—Deb Cote

I’ve been with Quickbase for eight years. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing how excited people get when, after just an hour of hearing about the problem they’ve been dealing with for a long time, I can say, “OK, I think I understand. Let me build something in the next 30 minutes that starts to address that.” And then they’re blown away by how quickly we can solve a problem that previously seemed unsolvable.

—Freddie Sabbs